NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE
October 31, 2004
Last summer in Atlanta, in the bright buggy late-afternoon heat of a midtown playground, a few Druid Hills High School baseball players taught a bunch of little kids how to play the game. My 16-year-old son Lee Samuel ran a baseball clinic with his team-mates Andre Mastrogiacomo and twins Matt and Palmer Hudson.
Here's what the teenagers didn't require of their players: try-outs; advance registration; birth certificates; assignment to teams by age, gender, and skill-level; uniforms, cleats, or team names; parent volunteers; snack schedules; parental phone-trees; make-up games in case of rain; commuting to fields in distant counties in search of the appropriate level of competition; and any commitment beyond taking one day at a time.
Here's what the players didn't miss: almost none of the above. (Uniforms are pretty cool. Also cleats. Especially indoors, on hardwood floors.)
I sat in a folding chair at the far edge of the playground in a singing haze of mosquitoes. I kept the books. Or, I should say, I kept the shoe-box. Also I kept the box of Band-aids. The charge for each clinic was five dollars-per-kid-per-day. The news was spread by a single flyer tacked up at a neighborhood pool and word of mouth.
I was unsure such a last-minute ad hoc approach would work, since many children in our community seem to have been booked into their summer camps and enrichment programs by the end of the previous January. And an entire generation is being raised to expect sports training to resemble that of professional league players, unfolding on well-maintained fields under the direction of paid coaches.
But just before five p.m. every afternoon, a swarm of children from about seven to 12 years of age appeared, on foot or on bike, at the top of the grassy hill leading to the playground and swept over and down the hill, fanning out into the field. Each kid pulled a balled-up five-dollar bill out of a pocket or duffle-bag and threw it at me. Their numbers increased daily. I turned and waved at parents peeking over the crest of the hill; mostly I waved them away. Starting on day two, I shook the box of Band-aids at them, too, to show I was on top of the emergency situation. Many parents were still dressed in their work clothes; they signaled their gratitude and drove away.
To my amazement, a few of the obviously sporty boys drew back, balked, even shed a few anxious tears, on their first day. "He's never played baseball before," a mom would explain apologetically. Or just one word sufficed: "Soccer." I understood. The outdoor lives of today's children like their inner lives have fallen to adult dictatorship. Early and intense specialization is part of the package. By ten, a boy or girl may be on an all-star traveling year-round soccer team. Twice- or thrice-a-week practices plus two games a weekend send young players barreling across green fields, fit and competent. But parents sometimes forget to pencil in the days on which the child is allowed to dabble in hopscotch or roller-skating, jump-rope or jacks, fort-building or hide-and-seek. Theres little leisure time in many childrens lives -- no long afternoons, no unplanned summers, no casual gathering-places, and certainly no packs of similarly idle neighborhood kids for them to master the traditional games of American childhood, including pick-up baseball. So some of the most athletic kids the soccer stars -- were the most hesitant to join Lees clinic to show up at this age, without a resume, without a $150 glove! Would they be welcome?
As a mother of seven, Ive seen how vast tracts of childrens lives have been staked out and claimed by the adult world. School hours are longer, the school year is longer, recess is endangered, and kindergarten focuses on academic skills. Play is a multi-billion-dollar business, too valuable to be left in the hands of children. Toy construction sets are pre-fabricated units, with thick instruction booklets a child disregards at his or her peril. Ive probably been guilty of reproaching my children: If you stray from the architectural drawings, your finished product will not resemble the Saxon castle on the cover of the box. Like youth sports, like modern kindergarten, play is expected to produce demonstrable results.
Childrens fantasy is a hugely profitable industry. The imaginations of American children shimmer with copyrighted characters speaking lines of movie dialogue, while their pajamas, sheets, breakfast cereals, toothpaste, sneakers, and backpacks signal allegiance to the same few characters. My nine-year-old sons brain surely glows in Spidermans colors.
The good news is that children -- true to the spark of Tom Sawyer or Brer Rabbit within them subvert parental and corporate ambitions at every opportunity. They accept our relentlessly helpful guidance only so far, after which they build the castles any way they damn well please.
My oldest kids, when little, used to annoy me by taking the oblong smiling heads off all their Lego people the policemen, the cowboys, the astronauts, the knights -- and snapping the heads together in long snakelike totem-poles. Theyd put a head with a moustache on a girls body. You put those heads back on those people right now! I would scold. The hours, the days, I spent on my hands and knees sorting and segregating!
And just because a kid allows his brain to be marinated in the images of a mass-marketed story doesnt mean he doesnt twist it to his own purpose. Our son Jesse, at six, loved Jackie Chan above all mortals. When I get big, Im going to help Jackie Chan, he announced. Great, great, we murmured. When I help Jackie Chan, can I still live at home? he anxiously asked one night at bedtime.
Sure, sweetie, youll live at home and just travel to help Jackie every day.
Will my name be Jesse Chan when Im big? he asked on another occasion.
Im sure that will make Jackie very proud, I said.
Sighing happily one night at bedtime, he asked, Why does Jackie Chan like me so much?
We were so far off-script now, wed never find our way back to Enter the Dragon.
The baseball clinic last summer resembled, by design, the casual off-hours scrimmaging of Lee and his pals, combined with favorite drills and exercises from their own childhood sports clinics and Little League. Theyd loved every kind of baseball growing up, even the occasional boot camp-like approach. Theyd learned the game under the sometimes strict, more often beneficent, guidance of amateur and professional coaches. For their own camp, they excluded bureaucratic top-heavy stuff like try-outs and team assignments, tournaments and championship play-offs; they kept order, but without yelling; and they poured most of their energy into the simple fun of throwing and catching a ball and swinging the bat and loping across the green steamy field yelling, Mine mine mine! Hooked into the pure fun of baseball themselves, they pulled the little kids in after them.
What the kids did care about was not striking out. SO no one ever struck out. The rule was: You swing until you hit something. The coaches didn't care if a kid racked up ten strikes. You could fly out, you could get tagged out. But there is no humiliation in flying out or getting tagged out. At the end of one game, I heard a boy yelling all the way up the hill, as he ran to meet his dad, "I hit a homerun!" 'Had he?' I thought. It didn't ring a bell. Then I realized: he had. He'd swung at so many pitches I had lost interest and was reading my book, but he finally had connected with the ball. I watched him join his dad and head for the car, with the trace of a swagger.
The baseball coaches taught drills with great seriousness: they taught how to crouch, how to stop a grounder, how to call for and catch a fly, how to run the bases. They brought over from the high school a big tarp with the drawing of a batter on it and taught pitching. They played "Pickle," a base-running game, every day. At night, the guys sat around like big-league managers and discussed what each player needed to work on to become more competitive. A few kids stymied them: the kid who lost it and stormed off if he didnt win Pickle, the kid who pouted when he wasnt on his best friends side, the kid who yelled loser! when someone was tagged out, the kid who said it was too hot, too buggy, baseball was stupid, and hed rather be home doing Playstation2 anyway. There was no tearing of hair, no guilt, and no psychology in the coaches conversations, just a mix of perplexity and annoyance. Clearly they preferred problems from the categories of throwing and base-running than problems from the category they called attitude.
From afar, now wearing long pants and thick socks and a long-sleeve shirt and doused with mosquito repellent, I marveled at the "Bad News Bears" quality of the games. You had your twins; you had your mix of white kids, black kids, brown kids; you had your tiny shy feminine eight-year-old girl who turned out to have a phenomenal throwing arm; you had your really angry nine-year-old boy; you had a few out-of-the-loop out-of-shape players. There was an 11-year-old boy from Kazakhstan, and a non-English-speaking ten-year-old boy from Ethiopia, and the usual bunch of talented 4th- and 5th-grade boys.
I wondered why the motley quality of the teams wasnt more familiar to me why they reminded me of Bad News Bears and Sandlot and The Big Green and The Mighty Ducks and other misfits-to-champions sports movies for children. Then I recalled that childrens teams dont look like this anymore. Id only seen them in the movies.
One big boy with some developmental issues was up at bat one afternoon. The first pitch sailed right by him. Lee, pitching, looked over his shoulder at his out-fielders, making sure they were all in their ready crouches. But as Lee wound up for the next pitch, the boy suddenly put down the bat, reached into his pocket, and produced a twenty dollar bill. "I have twenty dollars," he yelled to Lee.
"Great, man, that's really great. Pick up your bat, OK?"
"Look, twenty dollars."
"Great, man. You're up."
"Do you want it?"
"Not right now, thanks. Can you put it back in your pocket?"
The game came to a complete halt as the boy carefully folded his money and neatly squeezed it into his hip pocket. Lee threw a slow underhand pitch and the batter slowly swung the bat and there was a lovely pocking sound and the ball majestically arched into the air. This kid was strong. This kid had a future as a power-hitter. The outfielders started running in circles and the batters team-mates began cheering. But the big boy didn't run. He carefully put the bat on the ground again, reached back into his pocket, and turned around to show the catcher: "I have twenty dollars."
One day, there was a melt-down at third base. The chronically angry nine-year-old boy - I'll call him Chris - who was playing third-base, lost his temper with the base-runner. Chris threw down his glove, threw down his cap, and began stomping and shrieking. Then he gave the base-runner a hard shove. I'd given myself the assignment to stay quiet and stay back and let the kids run the show. So I just watched from afar, Coach Andre, a tall solid fellow headed for Georgia Southern University in the fall, left the pitchers mound and lumbered over to third base. He didn't have a clue what to do with Chris. He wasn't a professional coach, he was 18. He stopped Chris from slugging the base-runner, studied the tantrum for a moment, then leaned over, picked up the raging boy, threw him over his shoulder, strode across the field with him thrashing and screaming, set him down gently in the woods beyond the baseline, and returned to the pitcher's mound. Chris stormed off into the woods. Andre looked to me in the distance on my folding chair. I shrugged, laughed, and waved. He called to another kid to go cover third-base. The game continued. We could hear Chris bellowing and storming about deep in the woods. After about ten minutes, I noticed that a calmer Chris had emerged from the woods and was watching the game. His side was now at bat. "Hey man, you're on deck!" Lee called from the pitcher's mound, and Chris ran to get ready. When he got his hit, his team-mates cheered.
Chris's parents said to make sure to let them know if there's a baseball clinic next summer. The child with developmental issues evidently made more progress with eye-hand coordination in those two weeks of baseball than he had in eight years of his dad working one-on-one with him on physical skills. A handful of handsome boys told Lee they would go out for baseball in the spring. The eight-year-old girl with the ridiculously great throwing arm asked for a baseball glove for her next birthday. A heavyset girl who consistently won "Pickle" is no longer afraid of P.E. at school.
While I sat at the edge of the sweltering itchy playground last summer, parents descended the hill again and again to thank me, to thank Lee, for this chance, for this experience, not only for their children to learn baseball, but for their children to play baseball in a sand-lot pick-up walking-distance motley neighborhood game at least once in their lives.